By Erica Malloch
Everyone knows October is Breast Cancer Awareness month. Everyone knows they should get an annual mammogram stating at age 40. But do you know your family history? Your true family history?
Statistics show that one in eight women will be diagnosed with breast cancer during their lifetime, and roughly 5-10% of breast cancers are thought to be hereditary. This is a small percentage of the population. However, for those that have a genetic mutation for hereditary breast and ovarian cancer syndrome (an inherited tendency to develop breast and/or ovarian cancer), the probability that they will develop breast or ovarian cancer is staggeringly high.
My grandmother passed away from breast cancer at the age of 58. Because of this, we always knew there was a “family history” of breast cancer. However, it was not until recently that the secrets lying in our genes were revealed. My mother was notified that a cousin had been diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 42. At the urging of the cousin’s doctor, she underwent genetic testing for mutations in the BRCA (breast cancer) genes. The BRCA genes are specific genes that when mutated, can be linked to breast, ovarian and other cancers. Her cousin’s genetic test results revealed a mutation in the BRCA2 gene. The lifetime risk of developing breast cancer for someone with a BRCA1 or BRCA2 mutation can be as high as 80%, versus about a 13% risk for the general population. The lifetime risk of developing ovarian cancer for someone with these mutations could range anywhere from 10%-60%. The risk for the general population is roughly 1.5%.
With this added link, my mother had enough evidence to have her own test done. My mother’s results showed that she also had the BRCA2 mutation. Because of this, I discovered I would have a 50/50 chance of also testing positive for the mutation. I was then faced with the decision of whether or not to go through with the genetic testing. I was told that I would be able have all the screenings covered by insurance just based on my mother’s results, but I decided I had to know.
I found out last fall that I too have the BRCA2 mutation. Even though I felt I was prepared, it was still shocking. It has taken time to adjust to the news, but in the end this information is extremely empowering. I now have options. I now have ways to protect my health.
Since finding out my results, I welcomed a beautiful son last summer. With our three-year old daughter at home, he has completed our family. Last month, I decided to have a prophylactic oophorectomy, not only for protection against ovarian cancer, but also breast cancer as this surgical option will decrease my breast cancer risk by up to 50%. Eventually, I will likely have a bilateral prophylactic mastectomy, as my mother did last year. In the meantime, I will have biannual clinical breast exams and annual MRI’s and mammograms. I worry that I have passed this mutation on to my children, but all I can do is hope for the best, enjoy each day, and do everything I can to be proactive about my family’s health and well-being.
Genetic testing is not for everyone. Most people do not even need genetic testing. However, if you have a strong family history, I urge you to consider it. Genetic testing is an extremely personal choice, so take time to make sure you are prepared for the results. In addition to the testing process, some of the suggestions to help mediate your risk if you test positive for a mutation are also very personal, and you must decide what is right for you and your family. I have included a list of websites below that provide more information on the genetic testing process, how to assess your risk, and what to do to manage your risk.
As October, and Breast Cancer Awareness Month, is behind us, I am writing this today to please ask that you discuss your family history with your loved ones. The past may hold vital information that could provide you with critical tools to protect your health. And regardless of family history, please be proactive about your health. Do your monthly breast self-exam. Get your annual physical. Get your mammogram annually when you are due. Be an advocate for yourself.
Erica Malloch is a thirty-something year old living in Savoy, IL. She is married to her high school sweetheart Bryan, who is a Deputy with the Champaign County Sheriff’s Office. She is the mom of a sweet 3-year0old girl and a charming 3-month-old boy. Erica grew up in Champaign, IL, attending Central High School and the University of Illinois for undergraduate and graduate school. She has worked for the University of Illinois for eight years and is currently a Research Coordinator at the Beckman Institute. Erica likes to spend her free time doing fun activities with her family, trying to squeeze in a date night, and attempting to stay out of the kitchen and away from craft projects.